Back of students walking into commencement ceremony


April 14, 2021

A message from the President regarding Commencement

On Monday, April 12, updated guidance was issued from the New York State Department of Health (DOH) regarding “Graduation Celebrations during the COVID-19 State of Emergency.” The DOH guidance is informed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) “Guidance for Organizing Large Events and Gatherings.”

For now, our plan, previously communicated to the campus community before the updated guidelines were shared, is that from Monday, May 17 to Sunday, May 23, the University will host school-specific “Virtual Commencement and Degree Conferral Ceremonies.” The Virtual Commencement and Degree Conferral Ceremonies will fulfill the traditional academic protocols that, upon completion of required academic coursework, make individuals official college graduates.

In addition, and as we indicated before, we are planning in-person celebrations in the future—hopefully during the summer—when we can gather in larger numbers so that graduates and their family members may celebrate this important milestone.

I write now to inform you that St. John's University has been reviewing the updated New York State guidelines so as to evaluate in-person options for Commencement. The DOH and CDC continue to recommend that for now, large gatherings be avoided—particularly those at which social distancing cannot be maintained between people who live in different households. I have asked our staff to explore and evaluate multiple options for in-person ceremonies at several different outdoor venues in light of the newly issued guidance, and, to determine when those ceremonies might occur.

Of note, there are many required protocols (strict capacity restrictions, limits on the number of guests permitted for each graduate, social distancing, face coverings, required sign-in for contact tracing purposes, health screenings, etc.) which have been detailed in the latest guidance.

The Office of University Events will continue to communicate with graduating students all plans for how St. John’s will celebrate Commencement in a virtual format in May and with an in-person event at a date to be determined.

I ask for your continued patience and cooperation as our planning and Commencement procedures continue to develop.

Thank you.

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P.


Commencement 2021 Update

As the conclusion of the spring semester approaches, I write to share with you the planning process for this year’s Commencement Ceremonies.

Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, University personnel have explored and examined a wide array of options about how to best approach Commencement in a COVID-19 compliant, safe, meaningful, and memorable manner. We have heard from multiple campus constituencies regarding what each wants most from an in-person ceremony. We affirm that all graduating students deserve their moment of recognition and celebration, and we share in the unbridled joy that each Commencement brings to the extended St. John’s family. We are proud of our graduating students and their achievements.

As I previously communicated to the campus community, from Monday, May 17 to Sunday, May 23, St. John’s will host school-specific “Virtual Commencement and Degree Conferral Ceremonies.” In addition, we are planning in-person celebrations in the future—hopefully later this summer—when public health guidelines permit us to gather in larger numbers.

Please be assured that by the end of the spring semester—if not sooner—the University will communicate our still developing plans to host an in-person commencement later this summer when we anticipate that public assembly guidelines will be expanded to accommodate larger gatherings than currently permitted.

The Virtual Commencement and Degree Conferral Ceremonies will fulfill the traditional academic protocols that—upon completion of required academic coursework—make individuals official college graduates. The still-to-be-scheduled in-person events will be celebratory occasions to warmly welcome graduates into the family of St. John’s alumni.

Presently, New York State guidelines for “non-residential social gatherings” are limited to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors. If that public assembly formula were to remain unchanged by mid-May, to accommodate our more than 4,000 graduates, the University would have to schedule approximately 23 individual outdoor ceremonies or over 40 individual indoor ceremonies for only students. No guests would be permitted to attend. This is not how we believe you want to celebrate your graduation.

Also, it is important to note—per current NYS guidelines—expanded capacity restrictions for other sports venues, entertainment venues, and performing arts venues do not apply to hosting commencement ceremonies. To date, the guidance received from NYS is ever-changing and, vague with respect to commencement ceremonies. Because NYS public health guidelines for events continue to change constantly, we are now preparing for several possible event scenarios.

All of our planning scenarios include that all in-person events will take place at the Queens Campus for all members of the Class of 2021. What school/college-specific ceremonies might look like will depend on further guidance from New York State. In the interim, we will regularly provide updates to the campus community so that all parties involved in Commencement 2021 may plan accordingly.

As for the Class of 2020, the University will fulfill its pledge to provide a unique and dedicated in-person Commencement for those who would have celebrated their graduation last year. The timing of that event(s) will be announced at a future date as NYS guidelines become clearer.

The Office of University Events has already communicated with graduating students regarding plans for how St. John’s will celebrate commencement in a virtual format in May and options to recognize student achievements in ways befitting this significant milestone. For more information and updates, please visit the Commencement website and please be sure to check your University email account regularly.

Please be assured that the University is doing all that we can to deliver an in-person Commencement when permitted to have larger gatherings. It is my sincere hope and prayer that Commencement for the Class of 2021 and for the Class of 2020 will not only demonstrate the pride of St. John’s University, but the spirit of resilience that is a hallmark of our alumni – past, present, and future.

Thank you for your patience and for your continued cooperation to keep the St. John’s community safe and healthy. I know that the decision to have a virtual ceremony caused disappointment and dismay. Yet after examining all the options, we believe this is the only reasonable path forward. In addition to the toll that the pandemic has taken on our physical health, it has also taken a toll on our psychic health. We have not been able to gather as a community to celebrate important moments of passage: funerals, weddings, baptisms, retirements, and graduations. These losses continue to cause us to grieve. As we approach this Easter break, we are all looking for signs of new life and for hope. For those of us who are Christian, the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection is the ultimate promise that love and life are stronger than death. And no matter what our faith, we continue to see signs of hope in the works of service that so many are doing to keep our community safe and cared for. That is the spirit of our Vincentian spirit in action.

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P.

Special Announcement Regarding Commencement 2021

Dear Members of the St. John’s University Community:

Commencement marks an important moment in the lives of our graduates, their families and friends, and the entire St. John’s University community. It is both an end and a beginning. It is a celebration of what has been accomplished and of what more is to come.

As President of St. John’s, I eagerly look forward to the day when I can congratulate each student in person on their academic achievements. Given the current state of the pandemic, however, and the limitations placed on in-person gatherings, we have made the difficult decision to confer degrees through a virtual ceremony this May.

I want our graduates and families to know that we came to this decision reluctantly. We considered numerous modified, in-person options for May, evaluated the ever-changing state and local health and safety guidelines, and assessed the current restrictions limiting the size of in-person gatherings on campus. Given these circumstances, it was clear that we could not gather enough people safely to hold in-person ceremonies in May. We know how important Commencement is to our students and to their families, and did not want this most meaningful of days to be any less significant because of state and local restrictions placed on attendance by loved ones.

While we will confer degrees and celebrate our graduates in a virtual format in May, it is our hope to hold modified, in-person celebrations in the future—hopefully later this summer—when public health and safety guidelines permit us to gather in larger groups.

The schedule for the Virtual Commencement Ceremonies for our graduate- and undergraduate-level graduates (September 2020 and January 2021), and all of our May 2021 prospective graduates, is as follows:

  • Monday, May 17, 2021—College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Graduate-Level
  • Tuesday, May 18, 2021—The Peter J. Tobin College of Business Graduate-Level
  • Wednesday, May 19, 2021—The School of Education Graduate-Level
  • Thursday, May 20, 2021—St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Graduate-Level
  • Friday, May 21, 2021—The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies Graduate-Level
  • Sunday, May 23, 2021—Undergraduate-Level (Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island)

Our first and foremost priority is to ensure the health and safety of our graduates, their families, and the broader St. John’s community. We are committed to honoring our graduates in a special and distinguished way in May. In the coming weeks, the Office of University Events will provide prospective graduates with more information regarding how to participate in the virtual celebration. Please continue to check your St. John’s email account and the Commencement website for updates.

For the Class of 2020, for whom we had hoped to invite back for an in-person celebration this spring, we are still planning on identifying a time when we can safely bring them back to campus to celebrate their graduation.

Thank you for your extraordinary sacrifices to keep our St. John’s community safe. We look forward to celebrating the achievements of the Class of 2021 this May.

On the other side of this snowy February, spring will arrive and we will witness new life emerge from the earth. For those of us who are Christian, we will renew our faith in the God who has raised Jesus to new life after death.

Increasing vaccinations give us optimism that we might experience a new normal this summer. I wish that all of this could happen faster and allow us a traditional graduation in May, but we all know that we cannot control the course of events.

What we can control is how we react and what we do with the times that we live in. With fidelity to our Catholic and Vincentian mission, let us continue to choose to serve one another, especially our students, with love. The rest is in God’s good hands.

Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P.

Congratulations, graduates!

Members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021: 

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